When William Christie first encountered the transcription of the 17th-century composer Marc-Antoine Charpentier's "musical idyll" Les Arts Florissants, copied from the composer's autograph manuscripts in the Bibliothéque Nationale, the appeal was instant. Its intimate proportions meant it could be sung by a handful of soloists and the opéra de poche or "pocket opera" was reborn.
While working on the music, in Christie's apartment on Avenue Victor Hugo, in Paris, the first tenor in the ensemble, Michel Laplénie, "closed his score, looked up at the assembled company with a smile," recalls the founder and director, "and repeated five or six times 'Les Arts Florissants, Les Arts Florissants... Voici un joli nom pour un ensemble'." It was such a pretty name that it was unanimously accepted as the ensemble's name without further discussion.
So it is appropriate that, in celebration of its 25th anniversary, Les Arts Flo (as it has become known) is presenting a Charpentier double bill throughout Europe and North America, featuring Les Arts Florissants (being the first of his works it ever performed) with Charpentier's La Descente d'Orphée aux Enfers. The Orpheus myth, dealing with faithful love beyond the grave and the magical power of music, might be thought ideal for operatic treatment. Yet apart from Offenbach's send-up and Berlioz's Prix de Rome cantata, it has attracted few French composers since Charpentier wrote both a cantata and a chamber opera out of the tale.
At the Barbican, the performances are only semi-staged which may be just as well, since La Descente d'Orphée features three of the more grotesque punishments in the mythological world. Tantalus (continually tormented by food and drink beyond his reach), Ixion (bound for ever to a revolving flaming wheel) and Tityus (his heart perpetually pecked by vultures) all have their suffering relieved by Orpheus's singing.
Les Arts Florissants might seem rather tame after that, though the score demands that a thunderbolt descends to hurl the Furies into Hades. There's also an intriguing character called La Discorde who is "a most rude and untidy personality spreading panic among the Arts". There's no shortage of people we could all think of to cast in that role.
Charpentier was rather fascinated by the underworld and the afterlife and, indeed, even created a work featuring his own ghost, allowing him virtually to compose his own obituary: "I was a musician, considered good by the good musicians and ignorant by the ignorant ones. But since those who scorned me were more numerous than those who praised me, music became a small honour and a heavy burden."
Soon after his death, Charpentier's music largely vanished. But thanks to such scholar-performers as René Jacobs and Christie himself his music has been rescued and his reputation restored. By the end of this year, marking the 300th anniversary of his death, he will exist for many concertgoers as a lot more than the shadowy figure in the engraving featuring his only known likeness.
The Barbican, London EC2 (0845 120 7500), 20 January, 7.30pmReuse content